Crack Cocaine Sentence Reductions Finally Begin

Jeralyn Merritt: The 100 to 1 ratio between powder and crack cocaine penalties has no rationale or scientific basis.
This post, written by Jeralyn Merritt, originally appeared on FireDogLake

Finally, a little relief is at hand for the vastly disparate and draconian crack cocaine sentences meted out by federal courts. New federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses went into effect today.

Starting today, many offenders sentenced in federal court for crack will receive a sentence about 16 months less than they would have yesterday.

By way of background, through mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the Feds have punished crack crimes far more severely than those involving powder cocaine. The U.S. Sentencing Commission followed suit by enacting guidelines that matched the mandatory minimums.
A crime involving five grams of crack cocaine carries a mandatory sentence of five years in prison, and 50 grams carries a 10-year penalty. However, it takes 500 and 1,000 grams of powdered cocaine to trigger the same five and 10 year sentences.
The 100 to 1 ratio between powder and crack cocaine penalties has no rational or scientific basis. (You know you're onto something when even Joe Biden agrees.) After years of debate and studies demonstrating this, and with statistics showing that the crack penalties resulted in great racial disparity in sentences, in May, the United States Sentencing Commission proposed dropping the penalties for crack offenses by two levels. Congress had until October 31 to oppose new guideline. It didn't object, so the new guideline became effective today.

This is a welcome step in the right direction. But let's be very clear. It's not time to open the champagne. This is a relatively minor reduction and it doesn't apply to all defendants.

There's two remaining problems: Retroactivity and mandatory minimum sentences.

First, the Sentencing Commission must decide whether the reduction will be retroactive and apply to the 19,500 currently serving sentences for crack offenses. Its analysis of the issue is here (pdf) and iincludes the statistic that of the 19,500 inmates currently serving federal sentences for crack offenses, 86% are black, 8% are hispanic and 6% are white.

In other words, Blacks serve far longer sentences than whites for a comparable offense regarding substances that are chemically identical. With 19,500 inmates still in prison serving these disparate sentences, retroactivity is essential for fairness.

However, even if the reduction is made retroactive, it will not result in either an automatic sentence reduction or a reduction for everyone.
Jeralyn Merritt is criminal defense attorney in Denver representing persons accused of serious federal and state offenses.
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